No Money, Mo' Problems 

Things are tight in M-town, and I'm not talking about our music.

After years of hearing about mounting county debt, the city sampled the county's tune last month and gave more than 2,000 workers their walking papers.

And with budget season looming, it's probably only going to get leaner and meaner.

Mayor Willie Herenton met with the Memphis City School board last week to explain why he recommended cutting their annual funding from the city.

"I believe that funding education is the county's responsibility," said Herenton. "I want them to assume that responsibility."

By not providing funding to the city system, Herenton hopes to shift the tax burden for all education over to the county and thus curb tax inequity between city and county residents.

"What I'm really saying to you guys is this: You're in trouble with the $86 million, and you're in trouble without it," Herenton told the board. "You cannot meet the growing educational needs if the revenue situation does not change."

Of course, there's no guarantee that the cash-strapped county would, or even could, step up. Under the current funding formula, the county would have to put up $115 million to make up for Herenton's decision to bow out. Which is sort of the point. As Herenton himself said last Thursday: "The political climate in Memphis and Shelby County is not conducive to raising taxes."

Since we're talking about equity and fairness, why should it be? We already have the highest property taxes in the state. Roughly 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. The city is laying off all part-time and temporary workers, but less than a year ago, several appointed city employees received double-digit raises.

In an effort to save jobs, City Council members suggested rescinding the raises last week, but Herenton had not acted on the raises when he presented an updated budget plan to the council Tuesday.

At a press conference to announce the layoffs last month, Memphis CAO Keith McGee said questions about the raises assumed they were not based on merit.

Personnel files show that administrative assistant Tonia Jackson was getting paid $41,000 and considered "an extremely well-organized individual" when she was given additional duties and a hefty raise.

But is being "extremely well-organized" worth an extra $20,000 a year when your employer is in the midst of a fiscal crisis? It's one thing to offer a high salary to attract the best candidates for a top-level position; it's quite another to give someone a 50 percent raise to schedule meetings.

Narquenta Sims' file said she had taken the city's multicultural office to "an outstanding level." Maybe so, but a $15,000 raise is a pretty big pat on the back for someone who had been making $54,000 a year.

Maybe it's time we looked at the city's overall pay schedule. Two administrative assistants in the mayor's office were being paid in the low $30,000 range until the "position of administrative assistant [was] upgraded with an across-the-board salary of $41,000" in city government.

Just for comparison, Salary.com says administrative assistants with less than three years of experience make a median base salary of $29,799 nationally. Slightly higher-level administrators -- with two to five years experience -- make a median base of $33,597. And administrative assistants or senior-level secretaries with at least five years experience get $37,888.

I'm going to assume that all the city's administrative assistants have more than five years experience. Otherwise, I'd be a little huffy. Every time you turn around, it seems like something -- or someone -- else is in danger of getting the ax (see story page 17).

If we're going to stop funding some city services, perhaps even city schools, fine, but we also need to take a hard look at what, exactly, we are funding. n

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